It’s up to players to decide if they want a ‘B’ championship
If weaker counties want meaningful football in July and August then it will happen
Dejected Westmeath players following the heavy Leinster semi-final defeat to Dublin in Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
At around 5pm last Sunday, we all thought we had a firm idea what would dominate discussion in the GAA world for this coming week.
Jim Gavin’s refusal to do one-on-one interviews with the broadcast media subsequently hoovered up most of the coverage, but the idea of a graded championship, to try and minimise the sort of beating we saw Westmeath take on Sunday, is a hardy summer perennial.
Inequality is nothing new to the GAA, and there’s no point in saying it’s worse now than it’s ever been.
Teams have been getting hammerings for as long as the competition has existed. People complain about the Leinster championship as if this last 10 years of predictability has been unprecedented. And in that competition, maybe it is unprecedented.
But from 1974 to 1991, no Ulster or Connacht team beat a Leinster or Munster team in the championship. An entire generation of footballers – a Dick Clerkin’s-career-sized group of players – went through their sporting lives with the crushing reality of a two-tiered championship in all but name.
Connacht and Ulster teams played for their provincial title and, every three years, a chance to play in an All-Ireland final. Actually winning those All-Irelands was for Kerry and Cork, or Dublin and Offaly or Meath.
When I’ve heard people say in the last few years that the Gaelic football championship is at its most unfair and unbalanced, I think about that time and reckon we have a way to go yet to reach the bottom.
With Down’s breakthrough All-Ireland win in 1991, beating both the Munster and Leinster champions on the way, the cycle was broken. And with the advent of the qualifiers, obviously the championship has become less and less about what province you play in, and more and more about the best 8 teams reaching the quarter-finals.
The greater level of equality that the qualifiers brought with them – that there could be 4 Ulster teams in the quarter-finals if the teams were there of a sufficient quality – was really the first step to a tiered championship.
It has inevitably led to a group of 5 or 6 teams who get back to the quarter-finals pretty much all the time. It has also meant that 23 teams in total have reached the quarter-finals, so there’s no argument; the qualifiers have been good for the vast majority of counties.
But those qualifier runs have whetted the appetite of a great many counties for championship runs – for football in the summer. And in many ways, it falls to them to decide now if they want meaningful football in July and August.
This is a very simple question. It has been the story whenever players and managers of Division Three and Four teams have been asked that a tiered championship is a non-runner. The GPA said a ‘B’ championship would be boycotted by players if it passed Congress in February 2016. And I’ve always taken that as the last word on the matter.
A tiered championship depends entirely – entirely – on engagement from those people. If they buy into it, then it will be a success. If they don’t, as they didn’t with the Tommy Murphy Cup (bearing in mind that the GAA itself will hopefully have absorbed lessons from mistakes they made when running that tournament), then it’ll be dead in the water.
When that mood has changed, we will all need to revisit our opinions. The exact nature of the restructuring has been debated for so long that any further elaboration by me is futile, other than to say that with the minor grade changing to under-17, maybe now is the time to revisit the policy of playing those as a curtain-raiser to senior championship games.
Ladies senior football, and ‘B’ championship senior football, have a far more compelling promotional case to make for their presence on double-headers than our best young 16- and 17-year-olds. If Division Three and Four teams are given the carrot of an appearance in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, then a ‘B’ championship suddenly becomes a much more appetising prospect.
This isn’t just a decision for Leitrim, Waterford, and Wicklow. Remember Division Three of the league this year featured three teams that have won provincial championships in the last 15 years. Derry will be in there next year. There will be big teams, and big counties involved – there might even be a few big beatings in a ‘B’ championship too. That’s inevitable.
Westmeath deserved a shot at the Leinster championship, and have to take the beating they got on the chin. But they should also have an opportunity to play against teams of their own standard and see how far they go into the summer too.
If they and others like them decide that’s what they want to do, this could happen very quickly indeed. Get consensus, convince us you want it, and everyone – media, Division One teams, the GAA itself – will row in behind you.
But it’s up to you.